Advertisers Promise You More Family Time

Buy Dodge, Del Monte, Panasonic, Get Free Togetherness

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After a long, long weekend of Thanksgiving family togetherness, the last thing most people probably want is more ideas about how to spend time together.

Too bad. Prepare for the onslaught of family, family and more family marketing. This year it's not only coming from the typical holiday marketing that stresses perfect gift giving. It's also gaining steam as a year-round theme among a wider range of marketers in categories including food, video games, electronics and cars.

"The miracle today is getting family members all together at the same time. Marketers are just playing on that very, very common theme in American family life," said author and brand consultant Joe Calloway. "It's a real trend, or maybe fad, in marketing right now."

Even teens need family
It's no secret that in an increasingly technological world full of online friends, social networking, kiddie cellphones and personal music players that parents -- and even children -- often bemoan the lack of family time. A recent Columbia University study found that 84% of teens prefer to dine with their families.

"It's a backlash against this idea that I've got all these virtual friends and online relationships, but the people right next to me or in my community, I don't really know," said Jim Nail, chief marketing officer of brand consultancy Cymfony.

Technology companies can promote their wares as being equalizers for families. Baby boomers are playing Wii with their kids, for example. "A lot of baby boomers are on Facebook and MySpace, and who would have thought that would happen?" said Ted Morris, senior VP-global alliances at BrandIntel.

Another reason why you're seeing more togetherness in ads: Some marketers see family time as a potential differentiator in an ever-crowded marketplace. "Products are pretty much undifferentiated on a feature, function and quality basis. So marketers are attaching sales more and more to values," Mr. Nail said. Then again, that "differentiator" is being used marketers selling cars, fast food, video games, TVs and dog food.

Lack of sincerity
According to Mr. Calloway, though, it's not the usual pitch. "It's such a different version of 'Let's get together,'" he said. "Let's not talk to each other or cook anything, but let's watch TV, let's go to a restaurant, let's bring in takeout and pretend it's home-cooked family time. ... I don't know if it's working or not, but boy, the marketing people love it."

OK, but do consumers?

Ads for the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan show off swivel-and-go seating that allows passengers to turn their seats and sit around a table. The ad is built around two parents and three kids who alternately roll their eyes, chat cattily on the phone and swat at each other before jumping into the Caravan for a good old family time.

Anne-Marie Nichols, a mother and blogger at A Mama's Rant, test-drove the new Caravan for a week, courtesy of Dodge, but was ambivalent about the car and family togetherness.

Another wall
"Being able to listen to what I want while the kids are content watching 'SpongeBob' is very attractive," she wrote. "But each family member being plugged into our own thing certainly doesn't promote family togetherness like the commercials say the Caravan does. In fact, it does the opposite -- we're all in our own worlds ignoring each other's company. It's a dilemma for me."

Then again, she continued, "I love the quiet. And I loved that the kids were having fun, laughing, singing to the cartoons and not fighting. But we weren't together. ... What's the point of quality family time if all you're doing is telling the kids to stop fighting and be quiet?"

She has a point. And while Panasonic selling big screens to families to "bring back family time" may sound counterintuitive, it may be the time together, not the precise quality of it, that makes a difference.

Healthy meals
A recent study by the University of Minnesota found kids ate healthier -- whether the TV was on or off -- when they ate meals with their families. Another study by Columbia University found that teens who ate with their families frequently (five or more times per week) were significantly less likely to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.

And one area where most agree family-togetherness messages make sense is around food.

Del Monte, which has linked its vision to family and nutrition for several years, relaunched its corporate website and its marketing in April specifically around the value of eating meals together with the family, including pets. showcases 30 families who blog about their lives and balancing food and family.

"It's natural [for families to eat together], but we're now fighting the 24/7 busy lifestyle consumers lead today," said Apu Mody, senior VP of the consumer-products division at Del Monte. "Fifty years ago it may have seemed odd not to eat with someone. Today, look how many meals are eaten on the go or alone; it's a dramatic increase. Study after study shows, not only for kids, but adults, that the social interaction you get from meals together has so many benefits."

Diversity of families
Some analysts think the idea of family time in advertising could -- and should -- be extended.

It's important to recognize that families are defined in different ways, Mr. Morris said. While 25% of the population lives in a nuclear family, the situation most often portrayed in the family-togetherness ads, he said the other 75% makes up a vital majority.

"There's an opportunity for creative people here to highlight the different kinds of families beyond the nuclear family and map it to the products and brands," he said. "It could get tired if the same kind of family is constantly portrayed."
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